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Simcox v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 9, 2017

GINA F. SIMCOX, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.

          KANE, J.



         This is an action brought under Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Gina F. Simcox's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The matter has been referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to prepare a report and recommendation pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons expressed herein, and upon detailed consideration of the arguments raised by the parties in their respective briefs, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner's decision be vacated and that the case be remanded to the Commissioner to conduct a new administrative hearing pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. Background & Procedural History

         On September 11, 2012, Ms. Simcox protectively filed an application for benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act asserting an onset date of August 31, 2012, at which time she was 42 years old. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 5, 14; Doc. 10-3, at 12). Ms. Simcox alleges that she became disabled due to tremors and bipolar disorder. (Doc. 10-2, at 2).

         On November 28, 2012, Ms. Simcox's claims were denied at the initial level of administrative review. (Doc. 10-3, at 11; Doc. 10-4, at 2-6). During the initial evaluation of Ms. Simcox's claims, it was determined that the available evidence established the existence of the following medically determinable severe impairments: affective disorders and other disorders of the nervous system. (Doc. 10-3, at 5). Her claim was denied after an adjudicator determined that Ms. Simcox was capable of adjusting to other work at a light exertional level. (Doc. 10-3, at 10-11; Doc. 10-4, at 2-3). Ms. Simcox filed a timely request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 15, 2013. (Doc. 10-4, at 11-12).

         On July 16, 2014, Ms. Simcox appeared and testified during an administrative hearing before ALJ Patrick S. Cutter. (Doc. 10-2, at 26, 44-73). Impartial vocational expert Andrew Caporale (“VE Caporale”) also appeared and testified at the hearing. (Doc. 10-2, at 26). Ms. Simcox was represented by counsel during this proceeding. (Doc. 10-2, at 26). The ALJ denied Ms. Simcox's claims in a written decision dated July 31, 2014, in which the ALJ concluded that Ms. Simcox was capable of adjusting to a limited range of light work for which there exists a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (Doc. 10-2, at 26-38); see20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (defining “light work” in regard to Title II claims). On September 3, 2014, Ms. Simcox requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. (Doc. 10-2, at 19-20). The Appeals Council denied her request for review on January 20, 2016, thus affirming the ALJ's July of 2014 decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review by this Court. (Doc. 10-2, at 2-6).

         Ms. Simcox initiated this action by filing a complaint, through counsel, on March 24, 2016. (Doc. 1). In her complaint, Ms. Simcox alleged that the ALJ's decision is “erroneous and contrary to settled law.” (Doc. 1, ¶ 16). As relief she requests that this Court reverse the ALJ's decision and award benefits, or in the alternative, remand this case for a new administrative hearing. (Doc. 1, at 3). After service of the complaint, the Commissioner filed an answer together with a certified transcript of the entire record of the administrative proceedings on June 9, 2016. (Doc. 9; Doc. 10). In her answer, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and that the decision was made in accordance with the law and regulations. (Doc. 9, ¶12). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties and is now ripe for decision. (Doc. 15; Doc. 18; Doc. 19).

         II. Standard of Review

         In order to receive benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To satisfy this requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental impairment[2] that makes it impossible to do his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity[3] that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Additionally, to be eligible to receive benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must be insured for disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131.

         In evaluating whether a claimant is disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment;[4](4) whether the claimant is able to do past relevant work, considering his or her residual functional capacity (“RFC”);[5] and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the initial burden of demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(a) (effective June 12, 2014, through Apr. 19, 2015).[6] Once the claimant has established at step four that he or she cannot do past relevant work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his or her RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(f) (effective June 12, 2014, through Apr. 19, 2015).

         In reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a claimant's application for benefits, the Court's review is limited to determining whether the findings of the final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D. Pa. 2012). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal quotations omitted). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). In an adequately developed factual record, however, substantial evidence may be “something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). “In determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d 623, 627 (M.D. Pa. 2003). The question before the Court, therefore, is not whether Ms. Simcox is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 11, 2014) (“[I]t has been held that an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial evidence.”); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981) (“The [Commissioner]'s determination as to the status of a claim requires the correct application of the law to the facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner.”).

         III. The ALJ's decision

         In his July 2014 decision denying Ms. Simcox's applications for benefits, the ALJ assessed Ms. Simcox's case at each step of the five-step sequential evaluation process before concluding that Ms. Simcox was “not disabled” because she could adjust to other work that exists in the national economy. (Doc. 10-2, at 26-38). As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Simcox met the insured status requirement of Title II of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. (Doc. 10-2, at 26, 28). Thus, in order to prevail on her Title II claim, Ms. Simcox needed to show that she became disabled on or before that date. (Doc. 10-2, at 26).

         Proceeding to step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Simcox had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the August 31, 2012 onset date. (Doc. 10-2, at 28).

         At step two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence of record established the presence of the following medically determinable severe impairments during the relevant period: bipolar disorder (mixed presentation), substance use in remission, and essential tremors (benign). (Doc. 10-2, at 28-29).

         At step three, the ALJ found that, during the relevant period, Ms. Simcox did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in the version of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 that was in effect on the date the ALJ issued his decision. (Doc. 10-2, at 29-30). Specifically, the ALJ determined that Simcox's tremors did not meet the listings in Section 11.00, Neurological Disorders. (Doc. 10-2, at 29). The ALJ then concluded that the severity of Simcox's mental impairments, considered in combination, did not meet listings 12.04 or 12.06. (Doc. 10-2, at 29-30).

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ assessed Ms. Simcox's RFC. (Doc. 10-2, at 30-36). Ms. Simcox alleged that her impairments of bipolar disorder and tremors caused symptoms of crying, difficulty sleeping, poor stress tolerance, shakiness and palpitations, and also impacted her ability to remember, concentrate, understand, and use her hands. (Doc. 10-2, at 31). After examining her statements and the medical evidence, the ALJ found that Ms. Simcox's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that the Ms. Simcox's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not entirely credible. (Doc. 10-2, at 32). The ALJ then went on to detail Ms. Simcox's medical history, including her past hospitalizations and mental health therapy. (Doc. 10-2, at 32-36). In doing so, the ALJ considered and weighed medical opinions by the following sources: treating psychologist Rebekah Feeser (“Dr. Feeser”), treating certified registered nurse practitioner Renee Orris (“CRNP Orris”), nonexamining state agency medical consultant Jerry Brenner (“Dr. Brenner”), nonexamining state agency psychologist Edward Jonas (“Dr. Jonas”), and disability benefits analyst Debrena Grenia. (Doc. 10-2, at 35; Doc. 10-3; Doc. 10-5, at 22-23; Doc. 10-11, at 16-23; Doc. 10-12, at 51-52; Doc. 10-13, at 2-3). Finally, the ALJ also considered Ms. Simcox's global assessment of functioning (“GAF”) scores and a pair of third-party reports from friend Tricia Cressler and former coworker/supervisor Tiffany Mahan. (Doc. 10-2, at 35-36; Doc. 10-6, at 63-64; Doc. 10-8, at 105; Doc. 10-9, at 39; Doc. 10-10, at 4, 21).

         Dr. Feeser examined Ms. Simcox on a weekly basis beginning in May of 2011. (Doc. 10-7, at 116; Doc. 10-8, at 45; Doc. 10-12, at 106). The ALJ noted that Dr. Feeser's progress notes indicated “essentially . . . normal findings on mental status examination and that the claimant was doing well.” (Doc. 10-2, at 35). Nonetheless, Dr. Feeser completed a check-the-box questionnaire entitled “medical statement regarding the nature and severity of mental impairment(s)” on July 14, 2014, in which she opined that Ms. Simcox had extreme limitations in the following areas of functioning: tolerating work stress/pressure; maintaining attention/concentration during an 8-hour day; completing a normal workday or workweek; responding appropriately to changes in the work setting; and fulfilling quotas or production requirements. (Doc. 10-2, at 35; Doc. 10-13, at ...

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